Our very first play test of Universalis (using a much older and since highly revised set of rules) was played via Instant Messenger between just Mike and myself. I’ve adjusted that session a little to be consistent with the final version of the game (to avoid confusion) but the core elements are still relevant.
Mike initiated the game by proposing “sci-fi” as a Story Element. I followed up by making the setting focus on a tramp freighter traveling between the stars. We established that there were two key characters: Ulysses Korosuki scruffy hyperdrive engineer, and Maxwell Smith daring space pilot.
During the Game Preparation phase we established that in addition to his role as Hyperdrive Engineer, Ulysses also had Traits of International Politics, and Advanced Robotics, which he learned at the Skorlar Institute. Max had Traits of both Lucky and Reckless. Our ship was called the All’s Fair, with a role of Medium Cargo Ship. She had Traits of Old, Heavily Financed, Three KM long, and Hyper Space capable.
We also established that Max had been married to Ulysses sister Susan, but she’d left him and the ship. The Sexy, Android Science Officer named Shiela had been programmed with Susan’s voice and Ulysses had refused to change it, making Max very uncomfortable.
We then established the current situation. Our business was transporting cargo between two large interstellar powers: the Terran Unified Polity and an unnamed “Empire”. The two powers were engaged in a long cold war with occasional local flare-ups making it difficult to navigate through all of the tariffs, custom requirements, and secured “no fly” zones. As such we’d occasionally supplement our business with more legally-gray activities.
Currently we had just departed Mars Colony after a major refit with a cargo Max picked up for which we were being paid a huge amount relative to the cargo’s declared value. Max figured his natural talent and charm had just enabled him to negotiate a good deal. Ulysses was more suspicious. For a theme we selected the entanglements of politics. No matter how hard we’d try to stay out of them, we’d keep getting involved; with especial emphasis on the futility of the conflict in general.
The first scene started with an immediate Complication: alarm klaxons going off in the engine room, and warnings about a pressure build up in the hyperdrive. I was the Originator and Mike, in control of Ulysses, was the target. Mike won the Complication but rather than fix the engines he used his free Coins to Originate a new Complication. He stated that there was nothing wrong with the drive system so there must be some problem external to the ship. He made Max the Target as he was in the cockpit.
I was in control of Max so I drew upon Shiela’s Role as a Science Officer for a die and purchased the Trait of “Advanced Sensors X2” for the ship for another 2 dice. Mike purchased facts for the game world that sensors didn’t function to the aft where the engines were and used that to add more dice to the Complication. I therefor decided that Max (being reckless) would slew the ship around in “Crazy Ivan / Bootlegger Reverse” fashion and drew dice from Reckless, Lucky, and the Pilot Role.
I won the Complication by a huge margin and used my successes to identify the source of the problem. A small drone ship with TUP customs markings was pursuing us. It had caught us in a Hyper Interferon Beam, trying to force us to drop out of hyperspace.
For this final Complication, Mike took control of Max and Shiela and the Ship and I targeted all of them with the newly created drone ship. Mike bought Quick Thinking as a Trait for Ulysses and Created Rollo the Ship’s Computer to help him out. Max tried to go for a full burn on the engines at the exact moment that Ulysses modulated the drive’s Calax Frequency in the hope of breaking free of the beam.
He lost the Complication, and as a result had to shut down the engines to avoid implosion. The ship dropped out of hyperspace and was face to face with a Terran Unified Polity customs vessel…while carrying a suspicious cargo.
We called the game at this point as it had been only an early test, but both of us had been so engaged by the story creation process we knew then that this was a game we wanted to see to completion.
Featured Effect, Suspense:
Traditionally in role-playing, suspense has meant the GM keeping secrets from the players and the players not knowing what the GM was going to spring on them next. It quickly became obvious to us that that paradigm wouldn’t work in Universalis. We were afraid that with all players having GM level power there would be no suspense or surprises…”If I have total control over everything, how can I ever be surprised?”
The answer surprised us. There was actually a greater degree of suspense in a Universalis game because all of the players have power over the story. Instead of being in a game with 4 players, each of you wondering what nasty surprise the single GM has up his sleeve; in Universalis you’re in a game where each of you are wondering what any of the 4 other players might have up their sleeve. With 4 creative minds working on it you never know what to expect.
This is exemplified even in the brief 2 player game example above. The first complication of the scene was originated by me…something was wrong in the engine room. What was wrong in the engine room? Not only was Mike not expecting this problem and so it was a surprise to him, I had no predetermined list of “bad effects” and so it was equally suspenseful for me to see what he’d do with it.
Likewise, when I defined the “external problem” as being a TUP customs ship, that was a total surprise…to both of us. Here we were on our way from Mars and the next thing we knew we were being pulled over by the federales. That was no preplanned set encounter from a scenario book, that was completely spur of the moment improvisation that had riveted both of our attentions, because neither of us had any idea how it would turn out. What did the patrol ship want? What was our cargo anyway? Who were we supposed to deliver it to? We as players of the game didn’t know any more than a movie audience would know about what was about to happen, and that was exciting.